Former Duke Fertility Doctor Bounces Back After Breast Cancer
Jen Eaton, MD, was a textbook example of a woman at low risk for breast cancer. At almost 43 years old, she did high-intensity workouts five days a week, all her screening mammograms had been normal, and she did not have a strong family history of the disease. “I was in the best shape of my life,” she says.
So in May 2020, when Eaton happened to feel a lump in her right breast, she told herself it was probably nothing. As a fertility doctor and Medical Director of Assisted Reproductive Technology at Duke Fertility Center, she was well aware of the data -- most lumps aren’t cancer, and breast self-exams aren’t routinely recommended because the data suggest that they don’t improve survival outcomes.
But her concerns lingered. So she called her own ob-gyn, Louise Highley, MD, MSPH. “I was embarrassed to tell Dr. Highley that I had a lump because I felt that it was silly,” Eaton says. “But she took it seriously. Had it not been for that, I might have waited another six months to a year. Her willingness to pay attention to my concern saved my life.”
Know Your Own Body
A diagnostic mammogram was normal, but after an ultrasound, Eaton could tell her doctor was worried. Eaton had a biopsy. On her 43rd birthday, she looked at her own results in the electronic medical record. She had cancer — invasive ductal carcinoma.
The next day, Eaton met with Duke Cancer Institute (DCI) surgical oncologist Laura Rosenberger, MD, chief of breast surgery at Duke Regional Hospital. She felt a second lump in Eaton’s left breast. That led to an MRI and two more biopsies, which showed invasive ductal carcinoma, as well as a third area of concern.
In just one month, Eaton was supposed to be moving her family to Rhode Island for a new job at Brown University.
Rosenberger performed a double mastectomy. The surgery and subsequent testing revealed the third concerning area was invasive lobular carcinoma. This cancer was positive for a protein called HER2/neu, which meant she would need chemotherapy as well as a year of the targeted drug, Herceptin.
Eaton had a port placed for chemotherapy before moving to Rhode Island.
She says the care she received at DCI was amazing. “I have recommended Laura Rosenberger to multiple friends since I’ve left,” she says. “She is absolutely kind and brilliant and an amazing surgeon.”
Eaton stayed in touch with her Duke oncologist, Kelly Westbrook, MD. “I trust her opinion more than anyone else’s that I’ve ever encountered in oncology,” she says. “She called me back quite late in the evening when she should have been at home with her own family.” When there were differing opinions about what chemotherapy regimen to use, Westbrook took it back to a team of other medical oncologists at Duke to get recommendations.
In addition, a child life specialist from Duke’s Cancer Patient Support Program advised Eaton about how to talk to her children, who were five and eight at the time. “She was incredibly helpful and gave me tons of information about how to educate my children about my cancer,” Eaton says. The specialist advised her to be honest, and to use the word “cancer.”
Exercising Through Chemo
After moving, Eaton still had a long treatment regimen ahead. She has tackled it all with tenacity. She went for a run the day after she started chemotherapy.
“It was very stressful for me to hear that I was going to need all of this treatment that could potentially impact my ability to be able to be active and maintain my healthy lifestyle,” she says. “I talked to Dr. Westbrook about whether it would be possible for me to keep exercising during chemotherapy. She explained that not only would it be possible, but it is recommended because data shows that it significantly reduces negative side effects.”
Eaton has had her share of setbacks, including a serious infection in the tissue around one of the tissue expanders she had placed to prepare for reconstructive surgery. After that healed, she found a surgeon in Boston who was willing to try placing another, and it was successful.
Finished with reconstruction, Eaton is now back at work full time as director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Brown University.
“It has been hard to bounce back, but now that I’ve completed all my surgery, I’m working hard to rebuild my strength,” she says. Eaton posts workout inspiration and reflections on life as a cancer survivor on Instagram at @no_excuses_chick.
For her, the experience has driven home the point that ”breast cancer is common and often quite random.”
“I was healthy, active, had a normal BMI. I breast fed my children. I did all the things I was supposed to do,” she says.
Eaton advises women to advocate for themselves and know their own bodies. “Ask that your doctor listen to your concerns even if they don’t fit the algorithm,” she says. All of her mammograms were normal, and it wasn’t that they were misread; the cancer simply did not show up. Eaton has dense breast tissue, as 40 to 50 percent of women ages 40 to 74 do.
Eaton advises women to advocate for themselves and know their own bodies. “Ask that your doctor listen to your concerns even if they don’t fit the algorithm."
“If you have any concerns about the reliability of your routine screening or whether or not it’s meaningful for you, ask your doctor — ‘should I be getting an ultrasound, should I be getting an MRI, should I be doing routine self exams?’” Eaton says. “Being a doctor myself, I would always take whatever my doctor said as verbatim, and now I’m more likely to ask questions and not feel like I’m annoying or contradicting the physician.”